Over the last few days we have seen, yet again, that rational thought and fact plays second fiddle to overblown rhetoric in the discussion of MPs’ costs and expenses.
The latest hysteria is about a ‘fresh row’ because MPs are trying to comply with Health and Safety regulations. In particular, if a member of staff has to use a computer screen a great deal, then Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, states they can claim for the cost of an eye test. And if as a result of the test the optician believes glasses are needed for screen work, then help in paying for glasses, too. In this area there are regulations all employers should follow and yet when it comes to MPs doing so – we are encouraged to be outraged.
This latest noise is indicative of a wider problem, where context or facts are displaced in favour of excitement and hyperbole.
So, let’s just remind ourselves of some facts.
• In the wake of the expenses scandal, IPSA overhauled the system which governs how MPs can use public funds.
• Following public consultation we introduced clear rules and budgets.
• We banned and put safeguards around the practices from the past which caused most outrage.
• MPs can no longer claim for a second mortgage.
• Where they choose to employ a family member, they have to be employed on a legal contract and we publish the name and salary band of the individual concerned.
• There is genuine transparency – we have published every claim made by every MP.
• And the changes we have introduced have saved the taxpayer a huge sum of money – over £35m in four years.
But despite the huge progress made in a short period of time, some still try to promote hysteria about MPs incurring business costs.
I have heard MPs receive criticism for their stationery bills (it is standard for employers to provide paper, ink, staplers etc, but some suggest MPs should be treated differently), for travelling (even though they work in two locations – their constituency and Westminster), and even for having a website developed (there are very few organisations which don’t have one and which don’t need some expertise to help develop one).
And when I look at this sort of reaction, I am struck about the behaviour not of MPs, but of those commentators concerned. Some appear determined to manufacture ‘outrage’.
These monies are not a top up to an MP’s income. It is money which is properly incurred in the course of business and which is being properly accounted for.
I think it is time to grow up. It is absolutely right that we have rules and restrictions and transparency around the costs MPs incur – exactly as IPSA introduced - but it is also right that people realise that there is a cost of having someone represent us in Parliament. The alternatives are that MPs are unable to carry out their duties as we, or they, would wish, or that we have a Parliament packed full of those who are rich enough to bankroll everything themselves. I cannot believe either of those outcomes is desirable.
I do hope we are able to move to a more mature, constructive discussion of costs and expenses and leave behind those determined to work themselves into lather.